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Dangerous Method


“Dr. Donna” and Texas Art & Film thought it would be interesting to hear what psychoanalysts had to say about the film, so Dr. Donna interviewed several colleagues (Dr. Sally Davis, Dr. Ronald Schenk, and Dr. Gretchen Heyer) to get their impressions and to clarify some misinformation in the film’s presentation.  The psychoanalysts’ affiliations are listed at the end of the article.

            David Cronenberg’s attempt to present the story about the early days of psychoanalysis and the rift that occurred between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung is courageous, and in many respects captures the essence of what occurred.  The film’s screenplay was written by Christopher Hampton, who had earlier written a play about the same subject entitled “The Talking Cure.”  Both works were based on the book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr.  Interestingly, Kerr had gotten the idea for the subject from Paul Schrader, the movie director and screenwriter, for whom he was a graduate research assistant.  Subsequently, Kerr made it the subject of his doctoral dissertation in psychology.  Currently, he is 61 and practices in Maine.  He is the son of New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr and TV sitcom writer (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) Jean Kerr ( 

            Key points to be addressed in this article include:  Sabina Spielrein’s presentation and psychiatric diagnosis, issues about the understanding and use of transference and countertransference then and now, the relationship between Jung and Freud, and Spielrein’s contributions to their work and her life after she moved on.           

Sabina Spielrein’s Presentation

The only documentation we have on Spielrein’s diagnosis is based on Jung’s presentation three years after she finished treatment with him.  On admission, she screamed, cried, stuck out her tongue, kept her head down so as not to look anyone in the eye, grimaced, and appeared deeply depressed.  She refused to be touched.  Since puberty, Jung wrote that she had 1) obsessive, perverse fantasies, such as not being able to sit at the table and eat or see others eat without thinking of defecation; and 2) hysterical laughing and odd behavior when she was corrected.  Underlying these behaviors was her association to her father’s punishing hand, which made her sexually aroused, and this might be followed by “ill-concealed masturbation” (Jung’s term). 

Keira Knightley’s performance in the film is largely accurate, but it could be seen as a little “over the top.”  For instance, there is no record of her jutting out her jaw repeatedly or being unable to speak fluently, as seen in the movie.  It could be that the filmmakers read about similar cases of the period and created a composite of the range of symptoms that patients had at the time.

            It is true that there were more dramatic cases of hysteria then than we see today.  In his book, A Most Dangerous Method, John Kerr presumes that this is primarily because patients now receive more effective treatments and do not progress to more serious disorders.  During Jung’s time, people with nervous symptoms like Spielrein’s were typically sent to “nerve specialists” who would prescribe cold baths, electro-galvanic therapy, spas, etc., but the core symptom—e.g., anxiety—was not addressed, so patients would sometimes progress to the point of psychosis. 

Hysteria was a common diagnosis for women at the time, and psychoanalysis arose out of analyzing these kinds of patients.  But the social mores during those times could have been a factor as well.  They held to an idea about “ideal femininity” that was somewhat ethereal.  That is, girls were taught that bodily functions like sweating, defecation, sexuality—even eating—were base and were frowned upon.  Therefore, repression of these normal everyday functions could very well lead to psychological problems.  Nowadays, when people complain of symptoms of dizziness or vague kinds of pain, for which no underlying physical cause is found, anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications may be prescribed, and/or the person visits a psychotherapist to discuss and work on psychological issues that underlie the discomfort. 

            The film does a good job in depicting Sabina’s internal struggles.  At presentation to the clinic, she is obviously tense and tormented, and the scenes of her sessions with Jung have a ring of truth to them, despite the extreme condensation of the work and its highly dramatized depiction.  Jung’s treatment of her was clearly successful, as seen by her quick turn-around during hospitalization and her subsequent training in medical school.  She later became a psychoanalyst who made her mark on the profession with her profound thinking regarding death and rebirth and the analysis of children.  She eventually married and had children, and there was no recurrence of psychotic symptoms.


The film shows the dawning realization on Jung that there are dangers in the therapeutic relationship because of the power of transference (feelings the patient has toward the analyst) and countertransference (feelings the analyst has in reaction to the patient) and the boundaries and roles associated with them.  Because these processes are unconscious, and psychoanalysts’ knowledge about them was so limited, Jung found himself in a delicate situation.  For instance, he had a variety of different roles with Sabina; she worked with him on his scientific projects, they were friends—and perhaps lovers—and he was her doctor.  This would not be acceptable today, but at the time, the psychoanalysts were just beginning to be aware of the issues. 

Freud had developed the concept of transference from his own thinking regarding the erotic feelings of female patients for their analysts, and it was through Jung’s relationship with Spielrein that the idea of a countertransference arose.  Freud contended that certain roles and boundaries need to be maintained in order to deal with both the transference and countertransference.  In at least two letters to Jung in which the topic was Spielrein, he tells him, “They [women] help us to develop the thick skin we need and to dominate ‘countertransference’, which is after all a permanent problem for us…” (Kerr, p. 219).  Later, he again comments that “it is best to remain reserved and purely receptive.  We must never let our poor neurotics drive us crazy.  I believe an article on ‘counter-transference’ is sorely needed” (Kerr, p. 391). 

Although Jung came to agree with him, initially he struggled because of his attraction to Sabina.  Eventually, he questioned whether it was even possible to carry on a relationship with a patient outside the boundaries of the analysis, because T/CT cannot simply be consciously turned on and off.  What actually transpired between him and Spielrein in the hospital is not known because the Burgholzli Clinic had stringent confidentiality rules, and those records are not available to us.  We do have Jung’s presentation about her case at a professional meeting three years after he had seen her.  Although there is no definitive evidence that Jung and Spielrein had a sexual relationship, Kerr, after extensive research, thinks it is highly likely.  It is very unlikely, however, that he spanked her, as shown in the film.

            Regarding the role that Otto Gross played in the film, Freud did send Gross to Jung for psychoanalysis, but we do not know much more about the extent to which Gross actually influenced Jung.  Gross did contend that repression is a bad thing, and that transference should be used for the therapist’s advantage, which he saw as helping the patient.  However, the film implies that he was a greater influence on Jung than he actually was. 

            The film does capture Jung’s and Freud’s discussions about how the analyst should deal with T/CT and the boundaries and roles in the therapeutic relationship.  These two men brought rational thought to the unconscious part of the psyche to a greater extent than previously.  Today, we continue to explore T/CT, but the advantage today is that more and more there is awareness that therapists should reflect on these processes, be continuously aware of them in an analysis, and use them to help people in therapy understand themselves better.

Relationship between Jung and Freud

            Both men had a desire to meet one another, hoping the relationship would further their own work as well as systematize the psychoanalytic method.  At the time, Jung and his colleague Eugen Bleuler, who were at the respected Zurich Psychiatric Clinic, had international reputations; but Jung was much younger than Freud and less experienced.  Both had become aware of the other’s publications, and they met in person when Jung wrote to Freud requesting a visit.  They continued to have long conversations and communicate with one another through letters, and were mutually excited about the potential of the blossoming field of psychoanalysis.  Jung looked to Freud for his knowledge of the psychoanalytic method, whereas Freud was interested in Jung’s scientific work.  They both had visions of transforming and broadening psychoanalysis and disseminating it in Switzerland, America, and other countries. 

Key to Freud, as well, was Jung’s Protestantism; up to this point, Freud’s followers were primarily Jewish.  Freud wanted psychoanalysis to be respected for its universal foundation and not viewed as an endeavor associated exclusively with Jews. Jung was engaged in scientific endeavors at the Burgholzli Clinic, where he had easy access to psychotic patients, and Freud wanted psychoanalysis to have a scientific foundation and to encompass the psychoses as well as neuroses.  Jung was using a technique called “word association”, as a means of discerning more about unconscious processes.  This was done by presenting a stimulus word to a subject and noting the subject’s verbal response to it, the response time, the nature of the association, repetitions, etc. After looking at the patterns and unusualness of the responses, Jung elaborated on Pierre Janet’s idea of “complexes”, which is a way of mapping the unconscious by distinguishing clusters of images and thoughts that are held together with the same feeling tone.  We see this technique used by Jung with Sabina in the film.

Jung had religious and spiritual sentiments (passed down from his parents, a father who was a pastor and a mother with spiritualist beliefs) that Freud abhorred.  Freud maintained throughout their association that there was a sexual etiology of neurosis, whereas Jung saw the etiology as much more complex, involving an autonomous intentionality of the psyche, along with childhood fantasies and experiences.  One of Jung’s contributions to depth psychology is that there is a spiritual aspect of the human psyche, something beyond sexuality—a notion disputed by Freud.  In addition, Jung postulated a collective unconscious of archetypal contents manifesting in the human psyche through the personal complexes.  Freud’s theory was confined to the personal complexes and the cause-effect dynamics of the psyche, which dealt with unconscious memory through economical means.  At first, he thought that hysteria inevitably stemmed from sexual trauma in childhood, and that mental symptoms were produced from repressed memories of the trauma.  Later, he amended his theory to focus on repressed infantile fantasies.  He regarded the unconscious as a receptacle of repressed contents (experiences, fantasies, feelings) that were too painful to be experienced consciously.

            Most agree that the rupture in Freud’s and Jung’s relationship was inevitable.  They both had strong personalities and intellects and each had a narcissistic need to formulate his particular view of the unconscious and establish it in the scientific realm.  Because of these personal characteristics, they had difficulty in negotiating autonomy and authority.  Eventually, their personality conflicts, in conjunction with their theoretical differences, brought about a complete rupture.  Freud, especially, wanted everyone to agree with him and he had difficulty accepting ideas that were not consistent with his own.  They discontinued their collaboration after six years, and the conflict was never addressed or healed.  Toward the end of their association, they worried about the other’s vindictiveness in the form of publicly revealing aspects of their personal lives.  Freud had damning knowledge of Jung’s and Spielrein’s relationship, and Jung had suspicions about Freud’s sexual involvement with his sister-in-law.  Even accusations about one another’s mental stability flew back and forth, particularly with regard to father complexes.

            Both men, as well as Spielrein, who had become a psychoanalyst and theoretician in her own right,  experienced significant loss after the schism.  Freud lost someone he regarded as a son and political ally, along with the excitement and intellectual stimulation that Jung contributed.  Jung lost the emotional anchors that Freud and Spielrein served for him, and he subsequently suffered his own mental and emotional breakdown.  Spielrein lost the love of her life and two mentors, and although she had her career as a psychoanalyst, she could not pursue it in the same way as in the past without reopening old wounds.

Spielrein post Freud and Jung

            After her analysis, Spielrein became one of the first female psychoanalysts.  She received top honors in psychiatry upon graduation from the University of Zurich, and subsequently wrote 30 professional papers. (Incidentally, only a few were cited by Jung and Freud.)  She was affiliated with psychoanalytic societies in Vienna, Berlin, Geneva, and Moscow.  She contributed to child psychology and the origin of spoken language, and was a great influence on Jean Piaget, who underwent a training analysis with her for didactic purposes.  For a time, she became discouraged with psychoanalysis and made forays into surgery and music.  But she eventually found her way back to psychoanalysis and became productive again in theoretical formulations and clinical activities.  After her return to Moscow, she was involved in teaching, training analyses, and a children’s clinic.  Eventually, she became acquainted with and was an influence on psychologists Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky.  Tragically, she and her two daughters were killed by the Nazis, whom she had mistakenly fantasized were coming to rescue them. 

            Spielrein brings the concepts of Freud and Jung together in her idea about the relationship between sex and death.  Her theoretical contributions included a view of sexuality with two components:  a destructive/dissolving aspect and a transforming/creative aspect.  The ego derives energy from self-preservation of individuality—or “I”—and resists sexuality because it (the fusion that occurs during sex) threatens the individual.  The unconscious derives energy from sexuality in terms of species preservation, and is collective in its aims and representation.  It is indifferent to the fate of the individual “I”.  This conception accounts for repression in that the ego is ambivalent about sex because of its threat to “I”, so sexuality is repressed.  Freud’s theory that the sexual drive is for pleasure has no explanation for repression.

Spielrein’s ideas were later developed by Jung in his thinking about death and rebirth, and by Freud in his theory of Eros and Thanatos.  Neither really acknowledged Spielrein and her contributions to the field of psychoanalysis in the areas of child analysis, child psychology and death/rebirth.  Neither (nor many other psychoanalysts) took the time to read Spielrein’s work carefully, so they did not grasp her full meanings.  Freud and Jung actually referred to her as “the little girl”, and continually regarded her as a patient rather than someone with an authoritative voice.


The psychoanalysts interviewed agree that in large part the film A Dangerous Method captures the essence of the beginning stages of psychoanalysis and the theoretical and clinical differences that developed between two of its pioneers, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  It highlights the case of Sabina Spielrein which prompted Jung to contact Freud and begin a productive collaboration for understanding and explicating central theoretical and methodological tenets of a new approach to studying the human mind and treating its disorders.  In the process of their work, they developed a much better understanding of unconscious processes that develop in the therapy environment and the dangers in not respecting certain boundaries and limitations.  Their collaboration laid the groundwork for psychoanalysis’ fundamental contribution to the treatment of mental disorders:  The relationship between the therapist and the patient wherein the therapist listens with neutrality, facilitates the exploration of the patient’s past and present experiences, and manages the transference and countertransference in the patient’s interest.

Sally Davis, Ph.D., Psychologist and Psychoanalyst in private practice, Past President of the Houston
            Psychoanalytic Society, Faculty member, Center for Psychoanalytic Studies in Houston
Ronald Schenk, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst in Houston and Dallas Texas, Past President of the Inter-Regional
            Society of Jungian Analysts, Faculty member of Saybrook Institute, Jungian Studies Program
Gretchen Heyer, LPC, Ph.D., Jungian analyst in private practice, President-Elect of the Houston Psychoanalytic Society.

Reference:  John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method:  Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1994.